Fast bowling

“You have been watching West Indies cricket for 70 years – give me three outstanding memories,” a friend asks me.

Well, my first vivid memory is of being in the Schoolboy Stand at the Oval in Port-of-Spain in 1948 and seeing Andy Ganteaume hit a century against England. I remember it well. The excitement as he approached his maiden century in a Test – the joy when he made it. He never again played for the West Indies and I learned later he was reprimanded for slow batting in that innings. Nonsense. It was a beautiful innings.

Then, of course, there was that first unforgettable square cover drive by Rohan Kanhai at Bourda 1956 – the first time I ever saw Kanhai bat and knew at once that here was incomparable beauty in sport.

A third, recurrent memory in more recent times has been of Shiv Chanderpaul in one or other of his marvelous, dogged, grimly determined innings saving West Indies pride if not always the game. If courage is grace under pressure his batting was graceful. He chipped and chipped away at the granite and, behold, the masterpiece when he was done.

And there are a thousand memories which I will one day write about in the hereafter when I have some time and if the conditions are comfortable enough as one can only hope.

In this column I want to write about something else – what I most miss in West Indies cricket. What do I long for most? Many things, of course – winning nearly all the time, for instance. But let me be specific. I miss the fast bowling most. Let me then dwell a little on that special art within the greater art of cricket.

After the Packer era ended West Indies enjoyed a winning streak unique in the history of the game. Out of 34 Tests we lost only 2. We gave Australia the sort of thrashing a headmaster gives a wayward little boy. In 9 Tests in a row we did not lose a second innings wicket which is an all-time record. In limited-over contests we were the complete masters. It was not only a question of superior playing skills.

The West Indies established a psychological ascendancy which exerted its influence before a ball was bowled.

What led to this dominance? What was the secret? The captaincy of Clive Lloyd was a factor difficult to quantify but almost certainly more important than fully appreciated. They used to say of the Emperor Napoleon that his presence was worth 100,000 men in arms on the field of battle.

That is what happens when a man becomes a legend while he is still active. Lloyd’s stature in cricket loomed so large that merely his presence in the pavilion oppressed our opponents and undermined their confidence. Another factor, not very much mentioned, was the superiority of our fielding which was then a class above anyone else. A third factor was the opening partnership of Greenidge and Haynes which, late in their careers, flowered into by far the best in the world.

Yet any analysis of why the West Indies were dominant then and for so long must in the end focus primarily on our fast bowlers. They were the key. They were our Praetorian Guard. They made the essential difference. Let us then consider fast-bowling, this fearsome art which gave us our dominance in the game in those days of glory.

Cricket displays a more vivid gallery of beauty than any other game. The delicate late cut of a Frank Worrell, the delicious leg glance of Stollmeyer, a gleaming Kanhai cover drive, the majestic power of a back-drive by Walcott or Richards, the swooping grace of young Clive Lloyd in the covers – these are portraits in my mind’s eye that will never fade as long as my sense of beauty lasts.

But perhaps the most thrilling sight of all, a sense of danger mixing with the beauty, is that of a great fast bowler running in to bowl. In the whole sport in our time has there in fact ever been any sight which has more nearly stopped the heart with its combination of grace and savage excitement than that of Michael Holding gliding over the green grass in that marvellous run of his? Half the enchantment is in the beauty, half is in the menace.

When it comes to pure speed, every generation of cricketers has boasted its own contenders for the prize. Should it go to George Brown of Brighton who, legend has it, in the year 1818 once bowled a ball which beat bat, wicket, wicket keeper, longstop, went through a man’s coat on the boundary, and killed a dog twenty yards the other side? Observers in the 1980s swore that no one had ever, and no one would ever again, bowl as fast as Charles Kortright who is the only bowler so far in the history of the game to have sent a bouncer flying from the pitch clear over the boundary full for six byes. Later generations have named Spofforth of Australia for the prize, and Constantine at his fastest, and Larwood of bodyline fame, and Frank Tyson when he destroyed Australia in 1954/55, and the dreaded Charlie Griffith at his peak.

Ray Lindwall once bowled a man’s middle-stump and sent a bail flying 143 measured feet away. The argument will never end: some babe now softly at his mother’s breast will in years to come be crowned in his turn most terrifying of them all.

But let us give a roll call and observe one interesting fact: Richardson and Lockwood, Gregory and McDonald, Francis and John, Larwood and Voce, Martindale and Constantine, Lindwall and Miller, Statham and Trueman, Hall and Griffith, Lillee and Thomson. You will see that great fast bowlers have mostly hunted in pairs. But – and this is the essential point – never in the whole history of the game have they hunted in a ravening pack like West Indian fast bowlers in those days of glory. Roberts, Holding, Garner, Croft, Daniel, Patterson, Clark and Marshall – and not long after Ambrose and Walsh: it must be hard enough to steel the nerve to face twin-demons straining fiercely at the leash – four or even five, refreshed in relays, made the best and hardiest batsman wish to settle for a rainy day.

Yes, I miss that. Our ravening pack of fast bowlers. Their skill and fury and confidence. Their utter domination – so much so that the game’s authorities thought up ways to change the rules to cripple them – so much so that Lloyd could safely say: “They get us out for 100, we get them out for 90!” Those great bowlers thundering in – in Holding’s case gliding in with hardly a whisper of the death to come. And you could sit back with a smile on your face and think – “We have them!” Yes, those days, those great fast bowlers. Please, God of the far pavilions, give them to us again.

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